Tennessee firms fire warning shot against LGBT laws

By December 13, 2016News Clips

CLICK HERE to read the original article from The Tennesseean on 12/13/16

In 2016, after North Carolina passed a law that limited LGBT protections and restricted bathroom usage for transgender people, PayPal canceled its planned location in Charlotte, the NBA scrapped plans to hold its All-Star game there, Deutsche Bankhalted expansions planned for Cary, N.C. and the NCAA pulled championship games from the state.

It’s a series of revenue losses that a group of more than 190 Tennessee businesses don’t want to see their state repeat. They have joined together as a coalition, called Tennessee Thrives, to warn lawmakers against similar legislation that they say could be harmful to the state’s economy and impinges on inclusivity, friendliness and equality.

“When everything is going so well, when there is so much opportunity and potential for prosperity, why would we throw a wrench into the works by sending out a message of exclusion?” CMT President Brian Philips said. Pointing to North Carolina, he said, “We don’t want to be that.”

The businesses who have signed on range from Methodist Le Bonheur hospital in Memphis to Edley’s Bar-B-Que in Nashville to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. HCA, Bridgestone Arena and the Tennessee Aquarium are also among the large employers that have signed on, along with The Tennessean, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville News Sentinel. The companies have raised $100,000 for marketing tied to the initiative, and no businesses that have been approached have declined, said Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., also part of the coalition.

“As we talked to businesses, it was an easy ‘yes,’” Spyridon said, emphasizing the initiative is non-partisan. “We agree we all need to stick together and speak up.”

The first bill to be filed in the Tennessee senate for 2017 relates to the counseling law passed this year that allows therapists to not serve clients whose cases conflict with their principles. State Sen. Jack Johnson, a Brentwood Republican, wants to see the language changed to “beliefs” from “principles,” wording used in the original version of this year’s bill.

The counseling law, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, was called discriminatory by opponents and its passage led to the cancellation of meetings in Tennessee by three groups, including the American Counseling Association’s conference which was estimated to bring 3,000 visitors and $4 million in local and state tax revenue. Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia prohibited publicly funded travel to the state.

Meanwhile, a co-sponsor of the state’s so-called “bathroom bill,” Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said she has no plans to bring the legislation forward again because of the results of the presidential election. The bill, also sponsored by State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, would have required students in public schools to use restrooms corresponding with their sex at birth, with the intention of protecting young people’s privacy, Lynn said.

In April, she pulled the bill to study the issue further and, weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department challenged North Carolina’s law, saying it violated the rights of transgender people.

“I think we are pretty good with President(-elect) Trump coming into office,” Lynn said. “I don’t think President(-elect) Trump will try to impose any political agenda on Tennessee where that is concerned.”

During the 2016 legislative session, executives from 60 businesses, including Cigna, Hilton Hotels, Dow Chemical Co. and Alcoa Inc. signed a letter sent to Republican leaders, sharing their concerns with the bill.

Dale Walker, president of the Tennessee Pastors Network, said he was disappointed in Lynn’s decision to drop the bill. If opponents of bathroom restrictions continue to fight against such measures, the issue will have to be addressed through legislation, he said.

“We don’t feel like a child from a Christian family that goes to school should have to be faced with a situation of that nature, somebody who is transgender wanting to come in and use that bathroom,” Walker said.

He said the corporate sector should also pay attention to the revenue that evangelical groups and church-goers bring to states’ economies, pointing to Target as an example. More than 1 million people signed a petition to boycott the store after it said it would allow transgender workers and customers to use their restroom of their choice.

“Churches and Christians can play this game too,” Walker said. “Churches can pull conventions. They don’t have to come to Nashville to spend their money, or any big city for that matter, that is not family friendly.”

While the bathroom bill may not be on the 2017 legislative agenda, members of the Tennessee Thrives business coalition said they did not want to be reactionary should more legislation arise.

“We wanted to be proactive,” Spyridon said. “If nothing comes up then great, no harm in what we are trying to do or say.”

In Mississippi, comedians and performers canceled shows when the legislature passed a law allowing state workers and businesses to deny services based on their religious objections and several states banned state-funded travel there. In addition to losing company expansions and sporting events, North Carolina could also lose billions in federal aid for education.

North Carolina’s budget director said that the state’s economy has not been harmed by the new law concerning bathrooms and LGBT protections, evidenced by job growth and an increase in state revenue, but Spyridon said the missed economic gains are indisputable. If North Carolina didn’t see economic benefit in sport events or company recruitment, it would not have sought those in the first place, he said.

“When the NBA takes their All-Star game out of a city, you can pretend that doesn’t have an impact, but that’s missed money,” he said. “They are fortunate this happened at a time when the overall U.S. economy was strong and not at a time when everyone was more in need.”

Given the state’s willingness to offer incentives to lure company relocations, it makes little sense for lawmakers to propose legislation that will drive them away, Spyridon said.

“The state writes some pretty big checks to attract some business,” he said. “Why would you do that on one hand and then turn around and either run some off or close some down or take yourself out of running?”

Spyridon also pointed out that tourism is an important sector statewide and if that gets hit because of new legislation like a bathroom bill, rural areas will feel that directly. The entire state relies on sales taxes, significantly boosted by visitor spending in the urban areas, so rural areas have reason to support the initiative.

“You may not like the larger cities, but you do like the state budget and the surplus that is there right now,” he said.

Philips said laws like North Carolina’s make a difference when companies like Viacom, CMT’s parent company, decide where to do business.

“I’m really pleased at how fast the coalition is growing,” Philips said. “The state has made great progress and we’d prefer not lose any momentum over foolishness.”

Scripps Network Interactive, which employs 1,000 people at its Knoxville headquarters, is among businesses who agreed to support Tennessee Thrives.

“For our company, it’s very important we are able to attract a diverse and talented pool here to Tennessee,” said Cynthia Gibson, executive vice president and chief legal officer at Scripps. “We wouldn’t want the legislature to enact anything that would be seen as not welcoming…. We want to make sure our legislature is very thoughtful about the impact of whatever laws it passes.”

Reach Jamie McGee at 615-259-8071 and on Twitter @JamieMcGee_

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